Live animal exports

Moira Coombs, Law and Bills Digest and Hannah Gobbett, Economics

Key issue
Recent media coverage of animal abuse in the live export trade has led many to question whether the trade should be continued, or replaced with exports of Australian processed lamb and beef.

Live animal exports have been, and remain, a contentious issue. Many petitions have been made to Parliament to end the live export trade, such as that presented in November 2012 by Kelvin Thomson MP with 60,723 petitioners.

In 1985, the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare in its report The Export of Live Sheep from Australia concluded that if a decision on the future of the trade were made on animal welfare grounds alone, there was enough evidence to stop the trade. Taking into account economic and other considerations, the Committee recognised that the trade would continue, and therefore called for animal welfare improvements. The Committee also recommended that the Government encourage the expansion of the refrigerated trade, with the aim of eventually replacing the live trade. However, the UN Comtrade database indicates Australia remains the world’s largest exporter of live sheep and fourth largest for live cattle, with the industry employing an estimated 10,000 in regional Australia alone.

Map of Australian export abattoirs and main live export ports Map of Australian export abattoirs and main live export ports

Source: Aus Meat Limited

Please note that due to the close proximity of several livestock processing companies in some areas (Tamworth and Townsville), the location marker may not be exact as locations hold numerous abattoirs with different livestock processing capabilities.  

Animal welfare organisations, including the RSPCA and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), advocate that live exports be replaced with meat trade only. Both organisations have commissioned several investigations by consulting firm ACIL Tasman into the live export trade, which indicate that moving away from live exports would offer opportunities for Australian livestock producers. Further, the WSPA report on live cattle export found that domestic processing contributes more to regional economic activity and employment than live exports.

However, there are currently no export abattoirs in the Northern Territory or the northern region of Western Australia, where the majority of live export producers are concentrated. This is largely due to a lack of skilled and semi-skilled labour and low estimated returns. Prohibitively high transport costs (per head of livestock) restrict many north Australian producers from transporting livestock to eastern states’ export abattoirs.

Structure of the industry

There is high international demand for Australian livestock, as Australia is one of the few producers of high quality foot-and-mouth disease free animals. A strong preference for live sheep exists in the Middle East due to high fodder, water and meat subsidies provided by a number of Middle Eastern governments, the live sale practices in local souks and the demand for the animals to be slaughtered according to Halal practices.

There is also strong demand for live cattle in South East Asian nations, owing to government support for domestic feedlot industries in Indonesia as well as a lack of cold storage throughout the supply chain. However, a peak Islamic body has commented that Australian halal meat could be exported to Indonesia.

The live export trade is dominated by exports of cattle (which comprise 90% of total live exports) and account for 2.7% of Australian agricultural exports from 2006–2009. In this period the total value of live exports was $5,886.6 million for cattle and $311.9 million for sheep (in current prices).

Approximately 75% of exported sheep come from Western Australia, 14% from Victoria and 10% from South Australia. Australia’s largest market for live sheep is the Middle East, for which farmers are increasingly breeding fat-tailed breeds favoured by Middle Eastern consumers.

In terms of cattle, 40% of total live exports were sourced from the Northern Territory, 39% from Western Australia and 13% from Queensland in 2006–2009. Indonesia remains the largest market for live cattle; however, Israel, Malaysia, Japan and China are developing markets.

Scandal and response

The Keniry Review was commissioned after the Cormo Express disaster in August 2003 when a shipload of 57,937 sheep bound for Saudi Arabia was rejected because importing authorities claimed that 6% were infected with ‘scabby mouth’. By the time the ship was finally unloaded in Eritrea, 5,691 sheep had died. The Australian Government suspended live exports to Saudi Arabia but resumed them in 2005. The Keniry Review recommended a greater role for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service in setting standards and quality assurance and proposed a compulsory research and development levy on the industry.

An ABC Four Corners program on 30 May 2011 exposed horrific scenes of cruelty to Australian cattle while being slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs, resulting in a vociferous response from the public. The then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Joe Ludwig, suspended the trade and later announced an independent review of Australia’s live export trade conducted by Bill Farmer AO. The Farmer Review recommended a comprehensive review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock and the extension of supply chain reforms, then in place for Indonesia, to all countries.

Regulatory regime

The regulatory scheme governing animal exports is the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). The Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Act 1997 and the Export Control (Animals) Order 2004 set out the export licensing and permit system generally. The ESCAS framework is incorporated into this pre-existing system which means that the framework is mandatory.

The licensed exporter must submit their proposed ESCAS arrangements for assessment together with a notice of intention to export and a consignment risk management plan. The ESCAS must contain evidence of compliance with international animal welfare standards, demonstrate control and traceability through the supply chain, meet reporting and accountability standards, and include independent auditing, before assessment and approval by the Department of Agriculture.

Recent developments

The Indonesian government has signalled that it may seek to buy land in Australia to raise beef. While this may raise concerns about foreign investment, any cattle exported from such enterprises would be subject to the same rules, regardless of ownership.

In September 2013 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Mr Warren Truss, stated that strengthening all of Australia’s livestock exports to all trading partners would be a priority for the newly elected government. 

Further reading

L Ferris, ’The effectiveness of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, FlagPost weblog, 24 May 2013.

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